Agile delivery teams work in sprints with cross-functional teams to create small iterative or incremental improvements to a product.
UX designers prefer to work on the big picture alongside other designers
The trick is finding the balance between these 2 ways of working. UX designers on an agile delivery team need to be in several places at once while maintaining laser focus on the task at hand.
At Envato, we adapted a typical agile UX process to enable our UX designers to get this balance just right. Below I’ll explain how we started, the problems we encountered, and how we found the right balance with 3 modes of working.
Starting off with agile UX
We embed our UX designers within cross-functional feature teams made up of about 8 people, including a product manager and front- and back-end developers.
Each team specializes in a single part of our product—either a specific feature like our author upload tool, or a single customer journey such as the purchase process.
“Involve the whole team—including developers—in brainstorming ideas for the work ahead.”
Every sprint (a repeatable 2-week process), the team ships a new iteration to the customer and measures the results.
It’s not easy to wedge the UX process—research, ideation, prototyping, user testing, and iteration—into a 2-week timeframe. So an agile UX designer typically works at least one sprint ahead of their team to ensure they can have designs ready for the developers and avoid becoming a blocker for the team.
The problem with working one sprint ahead
We discovered that working too far ahead created an environment of “us and them” where the developers wanted designs delivered in a finished state, and UX designers felt pressured to keep delivering. It felt like design’s only purpose was to feed the development team with designs.
We spent most of the sprint fighting the little fires that occur when design and development aren’t aligned. Designers were more focused on trying to make the design work within the constraints that emerge during development. So the strategic work of defining the product of the future or the research into the customer’s needs rarely happened.
“Design’s only purpose should not be feeding the dev team with designs.”
We wanted to be measured by successful software in the hands of our customer—and not on the successful delivery of designs to the developers. So we made the switch to working half a sprint ahead.
This meant we needed to adjust the way we worked to fit 3 different modes of work. From collaborating with the developers and sharing their goal for the sprint, to working with the product manager on preparing just enough for the sprints ahead. We also made customer research an ongoing process and ensured we gave time for investigating the future product direction.
Working closely with front-end developers at Envato.
1. The current sprint
Our biggest priority: working with our team to focus on delivering the goal of that sprint. We need to make sure the developers have everything they need. As we gain knowledge during the sprint, we respond to the changes and compromises that need to be made. We find ourselves:
- Doing just enough design—sketching and talking more than wireframing and creating mockups
- Creating small iterations of the feature, not the full picture
- Guerrilla user testing
- Collaborating with front-end developers
- Working with other designers to ensure a cohesive experience
- Leaping in to help when problems pop up
Sketching flows and screens on a whiteboard.
2. Future sprints
UX takes longer than the 2 weeks you have for each sprint once you’ve considered the research, idea generation, testing, and feedback. So we need to be ready for the sprints ahead. Balancing preparing for the iterations ahead against not doing too much in advance or without the collaboration of the development team.
In our second mode, we focus on discovering what the right thing to build is so we can build it right. This includes:
- Researching customer needs and pain points
- Running an idea workshop—we like the Design Studio format
- Sketching flows and screens
- Building and testing prototypes with InVision
- Gathering feedback from everyone, including the customer
- Measuring outcomes from previous sprints to form new hypotheses
Discussing opportunities in the customer journey.
3. The roadmap
A product roadmap gives you a bird’s-eye view of where your product is going. And in order for the modes above to work, a product roadmap is key.
To create the roadmap, we collaborate with product managers. This is where we do most of our research. The teams are split between different customer types. Building a detailed picture of your customer is vital for creating a successful roadmap. We work on:
- Jobs-to-be-done customer interviews
- Service Design to map out the entire customer journey
- Running workshops to gain a shared understanding of the future
- Creating high-level concepts, a 10,000-foot view of the product in the future
- Gathering feedback from business stakeholders
Collaborating with other designers.
We rarely sit at our desks. Design facilitation is our new role. We collaborate in the open to facilitate the design of the product. The results can only be realized once the design is part of the product and in the hands of the customer—we can’t do this alone.
“Design facilitation is our new role.”
So in addition to these 3 modes, we need to be great with people. We build really strong relationships and collaborate closely with several different people. We build empathy with them and their world to understand their goals and constraints. People like:
- Business stakeholders
- Other designers and researchers
- The end user of the product
Organizing the work in-hand.
Making it work
All this seems very hard, and it is. The secret to making agile UX work: always know the most valuable thing you can do. We give each task 100%—as multi-tasking is not allowed. But we never forget to make time for the other work.
If you don’t develop a roadmap, your product won’t move forward. Without preparing for the work ahead, the whole team will slow down. And without working closely with developers those results won’t get realized.
“If you don’t develop a roadmap, your product won’t move forward.”
Things to try with your team
- Embed your designers into each development team—move their desks right next to the developers
- Experiment with reducing the number of sprints ahead that your designers work
- Show design work on the same wall you use to show work-in-progress development work or user stories and talk about it at your team standups
- Map out the whole customer journey with the whole team
- Involve the whole team—including developers—in brainstorming ideas for the work ahead
- Create an ongoing research process and involve the whole team
- Visualize all your design tasks for everyone to see—this will help you prioritize what you need to focus on
Nothing’s ever perfect. Every piece of design work is an iteration towards perfection and the search for more knowledge about the customer and their needs.
To be successful and happy working like this—as the UX designer in a fast-moving cross-functional team—you could say you need to be superhuman. But I think it’s more about being a super human being.
Chris Thelwell has been a digital product designer in both the UK and Australia for many years, juggling award-winning F1 projects, cool Google Chrome apps and the occasional European football championship. An outcome focused design leader, Chris specializes in disrupting markets, creating innovative new digital products, and building high-performing design teams in Agile software delivery environments within large enterprises, startups, and agencies.